In its experience as the crossroads of the west, Salt Lake City in the 19th century found itself playing host to some odd celebrities--from comics to tragedians, even the occasional aesthete. But for individuality none could match Artemus Ward and Oscar Wilde.
Ward, the stage name for Charles Farrar Browne, has been described as Abraham Lincoln's favorite funny man and Mark Twain's mentor. He was irrepressible, simply incapable of letting a straight line pass unmolested. He was a newspaperman.
Though he made his reputation by creating the persona of a semiliterate sideshowman he called Artemus Ward, Browne actually was a young man of considerable elegance, intelligence and sophistication. By the early 1860s he was editor of New York's Vanity Fair. And it can be said he was the first of the stand-up comedians.
He came to prominence while writing a regular column for the Cleveland Daily Plain Dealer in which he conceived the character of Artemus Ward describing his fictional adventures in letters from various towns and cities visited by a sideshow. In a blizzard of bad grammar and misspellings, "Artemus" would write of touring with "wild beests, snaiks and wax figgers."
Tall, Thin: Browne himself was described by Cleveland contemporaries as "young, tall, slender, and cheerful in manner." Another said he was "tall and thin, his face aquiline; his carriage bouyant, his demeanor joyous and eager." But his mood would vary as a roller coaster, from high-flying exuberance to such fits of depression he was sometimes afraid to be left alone at night. In essence, a typical journalist.
His newspaper columns were so popular that in 1861 he was persuaded to take to the stage as a lecturer and by November of that year had thought out the approach for Artemus Ward as a speaker. His "monologue" was not so much what he said, but how he said it. And though there is no written transcript of that fateful debut in Boston, it is enough to say the audience--surprised by this serious young man who seemed to have such difficulty lecturing--was kept in a constant roar of laughter.
By 1864 Artemus Ward was in huge demand both as a writer and lecturer. He was a show business celebrity. His humorous writings were widely circulated. In 1862, however, he wrote about Brigham Young and the Mormons, an entirely fictional spoof that convulsed its readers, and added to Ward's celebrity. Because Ward had not been to Utah, that satire would come back to haunt him.
As the Civil War battled on, Ward hit upon the notion of a Western tour. He persuaded his business manager, E.P. Hingston, to accompany him to California (by steamer via the isthmus of Panama) then return overland "across the Plains and do the Mormons as we return." Against Hingston's better judgment, he agreed. And the dead of winter 1863-64 found the two Easterners in a stagecoach, armed to chattering teeth against hostile Paiutes who were burning overland stations, bound for Great Salt Lake City.
Warm Reception: It was a precarious journey, but the intrepid travelers made it through safely. Then Ward heard that "a certain humorous sketch of mine, written some years before, had greatly incensed the Saints--and my reception at the new Zion might be unpleasantly warm." Hingston strolled the city to get a sense of the atmosphere and returned to their Salt Lake House rooms, "thanking God he never wrote against the Mormons." There is a prejudice against Artemus Ward, Hingston reported gloomily, and advised the performer to stay indoors.
"He has heard that the Mormons thirst for my blood and are on the lookout for me. Under these circumstances, I keep in." They contact T.B.H. Stenhouse, an Englishman and Latter-day Saint who has Brigham Young's ear. Stenhouse, an old newspaperman himself, allays Ward's anxiety "in regard to having my swan-like throat cut by the Danites, but thinks my wholesale denunciation of a people I had never seen was rather hasty."
Stenhouse reads aloud a paragraph which Ward had written, and to which the Saints objected: "I girded up my Lions and fled the Seen. I Packt up my duds and left Salt Lake, which is a 2nd Soddum and Germorer, inhabited by as theavin' & onprincipled a set of retchis as ever drew Breth in eny spot on the Globe."
Ward swallowed hard and pleaded that it was a purely burlesque sketch, that the strong paragraph should not be interpreted literally at all. "The Elder didn't seem to see it in that light, but we parted pleasantly." After a bout with mountain fever which put him down for two weeks, Ward asked for and was granted an interview with Brigham Young to seek approval for a performance in the Salt Lake Theatre.
Comic OK: Young made no allusion to the Mormon story Ward had written, and the OK was given for a "comic oration." What he said is not reported (the Deseret News was in the throes of a periodic newsprint shortage and suspended publication from December 1863, through March 1864). But Ward noted that the performance was a sell-out. Among his box-office receipts for the night were: four bushels of potatoes, two bushels of oats, two hams, one live pig (Hingston chained him in the box office.) one wolf-skin, one firkin of butte, and so forth.
Artemus Ward and the Mormons parted company in mid-February, and Ward returned to the East--to write more about his visit to Zion. Charles Farrar Browne died while on tour in England March 6, 1867 at the age of 33, the victim of apparent pulmonary tuberculosis.
Utah's reception for Dublin-born British writer Oscar Wilde in 1882 was somewhat less frenetic. Wilde (born Fingal O'Flahertie Wills) had gained a reputation for brilliant wit, studied aestheticism (sensitivity to art and beauty) which was to dominate his life, and was a minor celebrity when he made his American tour. His success with novels (The Picture of Dorian Gray) and plays (The Importance of Being Earnest) came later. As did his notorious lawsuit against the Marquis of Queensbury for libel and Wilde's subsequent prison term at hard labor for homosexuality.
Billed at the Salt Lake Theatre April 10, 1882, Wilde was to speak on the subject: "Art Decoration, Being the Practical Application of the Aesthetic Theory to Every-Day Home Life and Ornamentation." Salt Lakers who attended the performance, didn't know what to make of the lecturer. And the Salt Lake Herald reporter who covered the event devoted more than two columns of front page space to saying that. It was not a rave review. The large attendance at the lecture, he said, was due to curiosity. Wilde, he said, is on the whole, a jolly good fellow; sharp as a whip, and has enough sense to know how the ducats can best be seduced from the astute American.
Black Velvet: His costume struck the journalist as "not entirely favorable." Wilde was dressed in "a black velvet coat somewhat approaching the conventional claw-hammer in style, black velvet vest, ruffles at the throat, breast and wrists, black knee breeches, black stockings, and low pumps with pointed toes and silver buckles." The lecture delivery was "as odd and unpleasant to the ear as his appearance to the eye." His style was no more monotonous than the delivery; there was a total absence of gesture; he occasionally pulled out his handkerchief or affectionately disturbed his long straight tresses, remarked the critic.
In closing his fifty-minute lecture, Wilde told his audience, "Let there be no flower in your meadows that does not wreathe its tendrils around your pillars; no little leaf in your Titan forests that does not lend its form to design; no curving spray that does not live forever in carven arch or window of marble; no bird in your air that is not given the irredescent wonder of its color, the exquisite curves of its flight, to make more precious the preciousness of simple adornment; for the voices that have their dwelling in sea and mountain are not the chosen music of liberty only, or the sole treasure of its beauty."
Commented the critic: "a mere recognition of the close of the lecture was conveyed by the brief and short-lived applause." And so, in another time, did Artemus Ward and Oscar Wilde make their marks in Utah.